Tuesday, February 25, 2014

REPOST: What I Learned from Howling Monkeys

This week, at the slight risk of seeming lazy, I decided to re-post my most popular all-time blog post circa July 2012.  Enjoy!

Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica is located on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. It is a gem that I was most fortunate to discover in the early 80s, less than ten years after it was first established. National Geographic has called it  “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.”

My trip to Corcovado meant three weeks of sleeping on rocks, dancing around deadly snakes, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and listening to howling monkeys every night. By the end of each day my colleagues and I were roasted and rank. About as close to paradise as one could get.

I headed up a film crew that was part of a group of photojournalists invited by the Costa Rican government to explore the park and (hopefully) write or create television programs about it.

The lessons began the first day of our arrival. It was a wonderful group of journalists, magazine editors, writers and one eccentric professor from out east. This is before the Internet. Our focus was on film, photos and note taking to capture the true beauty of the country and its park. There were two women in the group who (it quickly became apparent) could hold their own with the men.  We were all young (relatively speaking) and eager to explore town and country.

San Jose is the capitol of Costa Rica and a bustling economic driver for the country. We were anxious to see what it had to offer. But first we had to tackle three weeks in the jungle.

I chose cut offs and a t-shirt instead of the more jungle attire of cargo pants, long sleeve shirt and boots. I was cooler in the jungle and didn’t look like a field hand from the Coachella Valley. I also figured ‘what the heck.’ A snake can bite through pants as easily as it can directly to skin. If I was going to get bit, long pants wouldn’t be much of a help.

Time is What You call It
We were supposed to fly into the park that next morning. We got to the small airport early and piled up our gear for three weeks of jungle camping. Then we waited. And waited. And waited.

What I didn’t understand back then was American time vs. South American time. Foolish me thought that 9:00am meant 9:00am or maybe a few minutes late. Actually in Central and South American countries 9:00am means never before the allotted hour, of course and perhaps up to: 45 minutes or longer after the appointed time. And in their world that was perfectly Ok.

My frustration must have been apparent because one of our trip leaders pulled me aside and informed me that the pilots would arrive when they felt like it. He said that I’d better get used to that attitude or else I would be the one getting frustrated for no reason at all. I took a deep breath and toned it down from A to B to C. Very mellow from then on.

Our fly-in was simple enough. We flew into the park at treetop level. Then dropped below the tree line onto a narrow strip of grass that had been cut out of the jungle. Our pilots were like cowboys. They loved scaring the heck out of Anglo tourists with their macho landings. Some planes hadn’t made it down safely in the past. Quite a sight as we taxied by.


Don’t complain about the Accommodations
Our base camp consisted of a park rancher’s station and separate bunkhouse carved out of the surrounding jungle. The bunkhouse was full so we opted to sleep on the ground nearby. In retrospect it was the right decision. After a couple of days we all adjusted to the hard ground, the howling of monkeys, sounds of strange animals nearby and the constant drone of insects all night long. It became our white noise and certainly beat the thunderous snoring rolling out of the bunkhouse each night.

Know Your Neighbors
There are three simple rules for hiking in the jungle.

Jungle terrain is seldom flat. That only happens in Tarzan movies. It’s hilly, rugged and laced with jungle vines that can send you sprawling down a slope in nothing flat. Caution is the word.

Secondly, watch out for spider monkeys. They love to pee on you as you pass by underneath.

The third rule is also pretty simple. Watch where you step or be prepared to die.
Never step over a log or object on the ground. Never lean up against a tree. Always step on top of the log then step over to the other side. Look at the tree first before you lean against it or sit next to it.

There were many species of venomous snakes in the park. The Fer-de-Lance and Bushmaster were tops in their game. One bite…thirty minutes…hello, heaven. Even the poison dart frog could do you in.

Supposedly a snake can hear your footfalls a long distance away and will move away from that sound. Theoretically, the snake is more scared of you than you are of it. But ‘theoretically’ doesn’t really help if a snake bites you. Then you have theoretically twenty to thirty minutes before you die. Unless you have snake serum that you can inject into the puncture wound immediately.

Our guide was a wonderful, always cheerful park ranger whose grasp of the English language always left us with the question: ‘what did he say’ or ‘did he really say that’ or ‘Ok, whatever.’


On the first day of a long hike, I casually asked our guide if he had snake bite serum with him after he described the numerous poison snakes that abounded in Corcovado. He said no, he’d left it back at base camp, a four-hour hike away. I guess when your time comes, it comes. We all walked a little more gingerly back to camp that day. And made sure he had it with him every time we went out after that.

Haste saves Toes and other Body Parts
Almost everyday, we’d have to ford some river or inlet to the sea. Always at low tide since the currents were so strong at high tide that it was very easy to get swept out to sea no matter how strong a swimmer you might be.

Then there was the matter of the Bull sharks, American crocodiles, and spectacled caiman that liked to swim up those rivers from the ocean. Our guide would watch carefully for any sign of our unwelcome visitors. Then with a wave, we’d roll up our pants (usually didn’t matter) and begin wading across the river or inlet. Looking down for any sign of a snapper usually didn’t matter. The water was brown with churning sand and silt. It was a guessing game if any one of us would be toast that day. Or the next. Often times after crossing the inlet someone would spot a fin or smudge on the water. Damn, made it again.

I’m not a Nudist
It wasn’t a fear of stepping on glass, or sitting on a steel chair or swimming across a pond full of snapping turtles, I just never pictured myself a nudist. Grant it, skin is skin is skin. And there’s a plethora of  ‘Oh, my gosh’ on the Internet if you’re interested that sort of thing. I’m not. I just never pictured myself, sans. clothes, among other people.

So when we came upon that backwater pool, in the middle of the jungle, five hours into our hike, taking off our clothes for a dip seemed surprisingly logical, rational and very appealing. I can’t remember who suggested it first. Probably the eccentric one. He always had great ideas.

The men took off their clothes first…boring. Then the women…no Brazilian trims there. One kept her panties on for a short while but then decided ‘what the heck, everything was visible anyway.’ Suddenly I felt very foolish hiding behind my sunglasses. It had quickly became apparent that the soothing coolness of the water, that magical pond in the middle of the jungle, and the lively banter going on was more interesting than body parts seen or imagined. And after a few glances, seriously, who cares?

It’s true that clothes make a woman sexy. Take those away and what you’re left with is… Ok, pass the lemonade. Maybe that’s the secret nudists have discovered; that after the clothes come off, your attention is drawn to more substantial and interesting things.  Who knew? It took a cool pond in the middle of a Costa Rican rainforest to teach me one of life’s great lessons.

Seemed Logical at the Time
The end of our gallivanting in that backwater pool came with an announcement from the eccentric one. It seemed that he had a rubber raft in his backpack and was looking for someone to float with him down the river to the sea, approximately four miles away. Strangely enough he got no takers. We just stood there, putting on our clothes, wondering if he was really serious.

Undaunted by the silent stares he got, the eccentric one tossed his clothes bag into his backpack, gave the pack to someone else and proceeded to inflate his rubber raft. Then with his hat and flip-flops on, he began floating away. We all looked in astonishment as his snow-white ass got smaller and smaller in the distance. Then it was gone all together.

Somehow it all seemed perfectly logical at the time. I think we just collectively shook our shoulders, agreed that the eccentric one would find that a normal thing to do (floating down an unknown river in the middle of the jungle, in the nude), and wondered if or when we’d ever see him again. I know it’s stupid, dumb and illogical but I still wonder what it would have been like if I’d taken him up on his offer.

He showed up that evening, hat, torn flip-flops, and beet red ass. Then over warm beer, he regaled us with stories of the sights and sounds that greeted and then followed him down the river all the way to the sea.

Nectar of the Gods
I started a habit in Costa Rica that I’ve continued ever since. And supposedly it’s good for your health. We were God-knows how far into one of our early hikes when I saw a lemon tree in a clearing. Even though my canteen was full of tepid, warm water, a couple of squirts of lemon make all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I'm Rich, You're Not.

There’s a great scene in the old Bill Cosby Television show where Theodore Huxtable, Dr. Huxtable’s son, is spouting off about being wealthy. Ever the casual but very wise Dr. Huxtable, (Bill Cosby) casually informs Theodore that while he and his wife Clare are wealthy, Theodore is not.

Being born into a family of wealth doesn’t make a person rich; just privileged and some would argue very lucky. But of course, a lot of young people don’t see it that way. For some of those folks, the sense of entitlement hangs heavy over their lives.

It’s almost as if they want a guarantee that if they work hard and sacrifice then everything will turn out OK. The trouble with that supposition is that in reality life doesn’t always work out that way. There are only two guarantees in life: death and taxes. Both can be avoided for a while but will always get you in the end.

While running the risk of sounding like some old curmudgeon who laments the good old times when men went off to work and the little woman stayed home to cook and clean and have babies, I have witnessed the naïve assumption among many young people that what is their parents have somehow also belongs to them.

One of my standard refrains for my own two kids as they were growing up was to remind them that ‘life isn’t fair’ and that was a fact of life. If you want to succeed in life, you ought to do it on your own.

That theme of driving ambition is a major component to the storyline in my book “Love in the A Shau.”  (picture shown to the right -->)

One of the main differences between my two protagonists in “A Shau” is their cultural backgrounds and status in society. Colleen is the daughter of a wealthy physician and her mother comes from old ‘east coast’ money. She has been raised to understand and appreciate her elevated position in society. She doesn’t take it for grant but she won’t apologize for it either.

Daniel, on the other hand, is the product of a broken marriage and a single mother who cautions him to remember ‘his place in society’ and not try to become someone or something he isn’t.

Against this realistic backdrop of societal differences, Colleen stated it best to her parents:
“Daniel was born hungry,” She tells them, “I had to learn to be hungry.”

More often than not, wealth once created by the first generation has disappeared by the third generation. In America, it’s called ‘shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.’  In Ireland, they call it ‘clog to clog.’ In China, it’s called ‘rice paddy to rice paddy.’  In Italy, it’s called ‘barn stall to barn stall.’ Universally, the transfer of wealth without responsibility enhances a sense of entitlement which more often than not leads to financial disaster.

Studies have proven that statistically sixty percent of families waste away their wealth by the end of the second generation. By the end of the third generation, ninety percent of families have little or nothing left of money received from grandparents. Ultimately, ninety-five percent of all trad-itional inheritance plans fail.

So how do you teach ambition to your children while at the same time offering them any advantage you can to help them succeed in real-world situations?

Of course, the internet is awash with suggestions, ideas, plans and psychological strategies to make sure your kids aren’t lazy and shiftless. One of the more realistic papers is entitled: “How to Raise Ambitious and Caring Children.” By Sandra Jarboe.  I like a lot of what it has to say. Encapsulated, some of her best ideas are:

1.      Live by example.
Most kids have better radar than NASA and the NSA combined. They watch everything you say and do. Fudge just a little and it will come around to bite you in the butt.

2.      Listen to your kids.
What I have heard from educators for centuries is that parents don’t listen
carefully to their kids. If you listen, kids will tell you almost anything and
everything going on in their lives.

3.      Watch what they pay attention to the most
By observing their interests you can figure out where their talents and satisfaction comes from.

4.      Show interest by investing time
It is the most valuable asset you have to help a child succeed.

5.      Never tell your child they can’t do something
Repeat: NEVER tell your kid that they can’t!

6.      Watch their company
At a young age, YOU are responsible for whom they hang out with. Even in middle school and high school, my wife and I were cognizant of who our kids friends were and what groups they belonged to. And I say that without apology.

7.      Train your children the right way and allow them to make mistakes
Don’t rule with an iron fist. Know when to correct and when to listen.

In my own life, I guess you show them tough-love with an emphasis on love. You encourage them to try things and risk failure when they do. You set standards relative to their position in life and you hold them to those expectations. You encourage empathy on their part and a recognition of the advantages they’ve been given. You stop being their friend and become their parent first and pal second. You do what you need to do even if it’s uncomfortable at the time. You somehow help them understand their advantages in life and use them for self-improvement and to help others.

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “It requires a great deal of boldness and a great deal of caution to make a great fortune, and when you’ve got it, it requires ten times as much to keep it.” Clearly around the world, the odds are against that happening.

Or maybe Andrew Carnegie, the 19th-century steel magnate said it best: “The parent who leaves his son (I would change it to children) enormous wealth generally deadens the talents and energies of the son, and tempts him to lead a less worthy life.”

Simply stated, “You gotta work for it even if you got it in the first place.”

If there is anything I can do for my kids and my grandchildren it’s to keep them ‘hungry’ for the rest of their lives. I hope I succeed in doing just that.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Near Death Experience

My first attempt was a casualty of spontaneous combustion. Long term fatigue gradually set in and resuscitation was out of the question. I had to let my baby go and watch it die a quick and painless death. It soon became just another fading memory of times well spent that didn’t end very well.

Less than a month later and still ensconced at Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting, I decided to forge ahead once more and give it a second chance. This second effort was an exercise built on high expectations, but once again, ending with disappointing results. Another year-long venture had ended in a whimper instead of a glorious flash. By all accounts, this sojourn west was destined for the history books of great expectations and even grander failures.

As a back story, I had been reading a lot of Clay Fisher and Will Henry, who it turns out, was the same author. The crusty old wordsmith had a way of capturing the essence of the old west without the burden of Hollywood clichés and Saturday afternoon matinée packages. He wrote about broken down old men and less than pure women. In his stories, the hero didn’t always get the girl and the girl didn’t always get to live. There was a raw and realistic tone to his stories that I wanted to emulate. And in recognition of my own Saturday afternoons spent foolishly, I wanted to recapture the flavor of the Fort Apache trilogy, John Ford westerns and John Wayne or Clint Eastwood at their buckskin best.

After four decades, I had file upon file of wonderful thoughts, ideas, concepts, dialogue and fading scratches on paper that haven’t seen the light of day for a very long time. It was a dustbin of treatments or fragment versions thereof that haven’t gotten past that first initial blush of excitement and hope and dreams and sometimes silly expectations.  It was a virtual catalogue of ‘what if’s’ that haven’t been strong enough or unique enough or poignant enough to make them worth pursuing any further.

My first stab at writing a western was entitled “The Hostile Trail” and the second was entitled “A Man of Two Tribes.” Upon completion, both were promptly filed away in some drawer in my office and I moved on with my life.

Despite my wife’s continuing insistence over the years that I go back to those two western manuscripts and attempt to have them published, I resisted. Neither one brought back fond memories beyond the typing and retyping (even with an IBM Selectric) night after night. I had simply lingered in ‘the zone’ for two years solid…too long. 

Writing continued to be a part of my work life and reading evolved beyond westerns to a wide variety of plain and esoteric subject matter. I changed. The world changed. People, events, success and disappointment painted a rich tapestry in my memory bank…even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

Then in the mid-2000s, pending retirement and the gradual shut down of my video business forced me to revisit that first manuscript. 

It changed my life.

I’ve already blogged about rewriting that first western and self-publishing it under the title “Apache Death Wind.”  I Got to Play Cowboy Today and My Posse.

Even without any marketing effort whatsoever, sales began to grow. Then after advertising on Facebook, another audience in the U.K. discovered my book. Now Australia has joined the small but growing ranks of my western aficionados.

After the success of “Apache Death Wind,” I focused my energies on several other books. But I couldn’t let go of the ending for that first western. I knew there was a sequel just waiting to be discovered. But writing takes time and research even if I had an audience asking for more. Writing new material is a commitment of time and energy and I was reticent to begin the process all over again.

I was in a quandary…until another lone cowboy; a half-breed, in this case, suddenly appeared on the proverbial horizon. Damn, I was back in the saddle again and I didn’t even see this one coming.

Not that long ago, more out of curiosity more than anything else, I dusted off that second old binder and began to read my second western written back in 1975. I sat down to figure out what had gone wrong and was shocked to find myself totally engaged in the story line, the characters, plot development and suspense.

“Darn” (well, maybe I didn’t say darn) I said to myself, this isn’t too bad. In fact, it’s ‘darn’ good. Reflecting back on that second writing experience I realize now that extreme fatigue of two solid years of typing and retyping had gotten the best of me and I was simply burnt out.

There seems to be a growing audience for my westerns and now I suddenly had a second story to share with them. I don’t want to disappoint them even if I hadn’t expected to strap back on my holster, saddle up my mare and head out for parts unknown. I can almost taste the dust and heat and lurking danger just around the next canyon.

Vida, my editor, to the rescue. After scanning the fragile brown paper into a word document and some rewriting on my part, I handed the manuscript over to her and she resurrected a tightly written, fast paced western adventure story. 

There were classic characters that my readers can enjoy following, hate with a passion, laugh at or cringe when they get themselves into dangerous situations. 

Half-breed, Ree Bannon must recover his people’s map to a Conquistador treasure before a rogue sheriff and his outlaw gang can find it. This quest leads him to the beautiful and audacious Claire and her fellow stagecoach passengers who are being pursued by marauding Apaches as the outlaw gang closes in on them. The blue-eyed breed is their only hope for survival against the converging hostile forces.

But I guess I’m not done with the west just yet. I’ve finally begun writing the sequel to “Apache Death Wind.” 

The first chapter begins with Jeb Burns, a hollowed-out shell of a man who has lost his only true love, Charlotte, and with it a will to live. He is about to enter a cantina where two Comachero brothers are about to meet their maker from Jeb’s Winchester rifle. His chances of escaping the forthcoming gunfight alive are near zero.

The second chapter begins with Charlotte in San Francisco reading a letter informing her that she is the sole heir to her Uncles ranch back in Arizona. A love interest back there wants her to return but there are evil forces bent on her demise before she even leaves town.

I’ll leave it at that. I hope to create a sequel that moves quickly, includes lots of action and a rekindled love affair that must face insurmountable odds just to survive. 

Surprisingly, there’s still a market for this genre out there. It’s a small but passionate audience that shares my fear of night sounds where none should be, of sky-lined trackers picking up my trail, of a woman waiting for me and the inevitable gunfight that is sure to come. 

I want to feed that audience and satisfy my own desire to once more climb onboard that tired old saddle and see what is just over the next ridgeline. 

Three in the saddle now isn’t too bad for two casualties back in ’74 and ’75 that just wouldn’t die.